Deep, fertile valleys drift upward into misty skies, hiding humble homesteads, patchy jungle, and tumbling waterfalls. North-central Nicaragua is mysterious, charming, and relatively unknown. It is also very chilly. The lush landscape of the highlands makes for a cool, refreshing climate that will come as a welcome relief if you've just arrived from the hot coast.

Though this is cowboy country today -- a land of hardy farmers with easy smiles and humble hospitality -- the region hasn't always been so peaceful. This tough, beautiful land was a war zone for much of the 20th century. It was here that the legendary liberal General Sandino battled American marines, part of a war for power with the U.S. in which the mountain town of Ocotal won the honor of being the first city in history to be air-raided in 1931. After an American-backed president came to power in 1937, things were relatively calm here until the rise of the Sandinistas in the 1970s and their march on Managua from the north. Contras in the 1980s then wreaked havoc until a 1990s peace treaty allowed farmers to once again work their fields of tobacco, coffee, and vegetables without a rifle slung over their shoulders. Then, complete disaster struck in the form of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The devastating storm most affected the north of the country, wiping away entire towns.

Fortunately, this part of Nicaragua is calm again, and the only clouds on the horizon are those real ones that roll down the mountain and envelope you. The north has truly proved itself to be an enduring beauty. Commerce has returned in the form of abundant harvests and swarming street vendors. Ecotourists are attracted by trekking in the pristine jungle. Agro-tourism has a great future in the form of coffee farms and tobacco factory tours. Whether it's watching old ladies roll fat cigars in the town of Estelí or exploring isolated rural retreats near Matagalpa, this part of Nicaragua cannot fail to attract and enchant you.